Celtic Junction Arts Review

Somerville & Ross: A pair of brilliant minds

Mary McCormick

The Ascendancy Authors of The Irish R.M. Stories

The story of two female cousin co-writers from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy class, as that class faded from history, is an absorbing tale full of eccentricity, fox hunting, spiritualism, early feminism, and a unique bond between a matched pair of brilliant minds.

Edith Oenone Somerville was born May 2, 1858, on the Greek island of Corfu, where her father was stationed.  A year later, the family returned to the Big House – Drishane House, Castletownshend, County Cork.  Their ancestors had been estate owners of Norman origin in Scotland before William Somerville, an Episcopal minister, fled to Ireland in 1690.

Black and white photo of Edith Somerville sitting side saddle on the horse Tarbrush. She wears a riding outfit and hat, and holds a crop.
Edith Somerville on Tarbrush. Irish Memories by Edith Somerville, 1919. Publisher: New York, Longmans, Green & Co. Public domain.

Edith was the eldest of eight children, the top dog in the family, taught to ride by her grandfather from the age of four.  The Coghill cousins lived next door in another Big House.  Edith was the star, talented at drawing, painting, writing, dancing, and acting in family amateur theatricals.  Later, Edith followed another cousin, a painter, to study at his studio in Dusseldorf, and then spent several stints studying painting at studios in Paris.  A talented artist, she later illustrated the Irish R.M. stories, which gave her extra income.

British Library digitized image of “The Dictionary of Dublin, being a comprehensive guide to the city and its neighbourhood … Illustrated by numerous photographs taken by the authors” Published 1895 by Sealy, Bryers & Walker

Edith and her co-writer Violet Martin (pen name Martin Ross) were both graduates of Alexandra College, Dublin, founded in 1866.  Edith attended Alexandra College for two terms in 1875, her education before this having been sketchy.  She disposed of a series of governesses and her mother had a low opinion of her potential.  Both she and Violet read widely and were well-versed in the Bible.

When Edith was 19, she fell in love with Hewitt Poole, a good-looking, athletic, young railway engineer, who was a watercolorist, rider, dancer, and excellent shot.  His great-grandmother was a Somerville.  He and Edith sang, danced, walked ‘circuitously’ and exchanged poems.  He proposed, but was rejected by Edith’s father for lack of money.  In 1880, Poole married a double second cousin.  Edith was crushed and decided to never marry.  She wrote in her diary, “I will paint.  I will also work.”  The Somervilles were relatively impecunious, with many children to be brought up on little money.  Edith was determined to earn her own living and not be a drain on her parents’ income.

Edith’s first cousin Herbert Greene, an Oxford don, kept proposing to her for twenty years thereafter when he returned home to Ireland every summer.  She rejected each proposal, considering him “a most wearing person” in his “resolve to boss everything.”  He is thought to be the model for the Irish R.M. character. 

Profile drawing of young Violet Marin with hair up and wearing a short sleeved dress. It is signed, "Martin Ross".
Violet Martin. From the book Irish Memories by Edith Somerville, 1919. Publisher: New York, Longmans, Green & Co.

Violet Florence Martin was born on June 11, 1862 at Ross House, County Galway, the youngest child of sixteen.  The Martins were one of the Tribes of Galway, and by 1590, had acquired a large part of Connemara, later converting to the Anglican Church to retain their land.  Violet’s father died in 1872, and her mother moved the family to London while the estate was rented out.

Edith and Violet were peers of Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge – but they kept apart from the Celtic Revival, thinking its use of dialect artificial, although they both learned Irish.  They visited and wrote about the Aran Islands before Synge did.  Violet and Lady Gregory were cousins and corresponded over their literary works.  Long before the Revival writers began their ‘dialect’ literature, Somerville and Ross had published novels based on recorded dialect.  Lady Gregory asked them to write a play for The Abbey Theatre, but anything too serious like plays caused both Edith and Violet to break into facetiousness and helpless laughter.

They were familiar with Maria Edgeworth and Sir Walter Scott from childhood, when their works were read aloud to them.  Maria Edgeworth was an idol to them and a strong influence.  Edgeworth was a close friend of Nancy Crampton, their great-grandmother. 

The second cousins did not meet until 1886.  Like Edith, Violet was similarly short of money.  The two spent a large portion of their earnings on the upkeep of the family Big Houses.  They knew their novels were recording the death throes of their class.  In the late nineteenth century, Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish political leader, and the Irish National Land League sought to abolish landlordism and enable poor tenant farmers to own the land they worked, eroding the power base of the Anglo-Irish social class.  This period of agitation was known as the Land Wars, and involved much vigilante violence.  In the midst of this upheaval, the strongest fixed emotions of Somerville and Ross were the love of place- their homes Drishane House and Ross House.

Ivy covered Gregorian manner pictured in black and white.
Drishane House
Ross House

Both began their writing careers separately, penning travel articles for English magazines, and then jointly wrote novels.  The two cousins wrote fourteen books together, including their best novel, The Real Charlotte (1894).  Some Experiences of an Irish R.M., the first compilation of their Irish R.M. short stories, was published in 1899.  The stories had originally appeared in serial form in Badminton Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, an English monthly with stories and articles to amuse men and women with sporting interests.  Hence, the recurring setting of fox hunts in the stories.

The favorite pastimes of the upper classes in Victorian Britain and Ireland were fox hunting and gardening.  Women didn’t hunt until the mid-19th century.  Propriety dictated that they must ride side saddle, which added both short and long-term peril to an already dangerous sport.  Although Edith was an excellent rider, from her late fifties onward, her right leg was damaged and gave her great pain.  Violet died in December 1915, her death thought to have been caused by a hunting fall in November 1898, and a resulting displacement in her back, causing the slow growth of a brain tumor.  Three years before her own death in 1949, Edith told a friend that she would not make any alterations to her life, “save in giving a great deal more time to painting and a great deal less to hunting.”

Illustration by Edith Somerville

Readers of the Irish R.M. stories can feel the excitement and peril of each fox hunt as if in the saddle themselves.  From “Philippa’s Fox-Hunt,” here is a description of the Irish R.M. in one of his first hunts, riding a horse called Sorcerer:

A heavy stone wall was the first occurrence of note.  Flurry chose a place where the top was loose, and his clumsy-looking brown mare changed feet on the rattling stones like a fairy.  Sorcerer came at it, tense and collected as a bow at full stretch, and sailed steeply into the air; I saw the wall far beneath me, with an unsuspected ditch on the far side, and I felt my hat following me at the full stretch of its guard as we swept over it, then, with a long slant, we descended to earth some sixteen feet from where we had left it, and I was possessor of the gratifying fact that I had achieved a good-sized “fly,” and had not perceptibly moved in my saddle.  Subsequent disillusioning experience has taught me that but few horses jump like Sorcerer, so gallantly, so sympathetically, and with such supreme mastery of the subject; but none the less the enthusiasm that he imparted to me has never been extinguished, and that October morning ride revealed to me the unsuspected intoxication of fox-hunting.

A synthesis of religion and spiritualism was practiced by Edith and her sister Hildegarde.  They both had psychic powers, and because of the Somerville and Coghill families’ permissive attitudes toward spiritualism, felt no moral restraint in using those powers.  This was unusual for the time, when the calling-up of the dead was forbidden by the Catholic Church and many Anglican branches.

Madame Blavatsky

Edith’s uncle, Sir Joscelyn Coghill, was a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882.  Enthusiasm for amateur psychic investigations and séances quickly became an accepted part of life in Castletownshend.  The Society, in its exposure of Madame Blavatsky as a trickster, caused a split in the ranks of the spiritualists.  They divided into “materialists” and the more airy-fairy theosophists, who disdainfully objected to “proofs.”  Edith and her cousins were materialists—serious, sensible, and convinced.

Edith and Violet shared with the Irish a belief and intense interest in premonitions, apparitions and the workings of Fate.  Part of the spiritualism movement was automatic writing, channeled from the dead.  Transcriptions of Edith’s automatic writing, composed in a light trance and at great speed in a continuous line, are written with great style and unusual use of words.  

The two cousins, writing

The two cousins were apart for much of the working year, so it was important for them to be able to sense each other’s thoughts.  Violet did not permanently reside at Drishane House until after her mother’s death in 1906.  By this date, they had been collaborators for twenty years.  When they were together, each instinctively knew what the other was thinking; when they were apart, a continuous awareness of the other’s mind affected their reactions, notes and projects.

In the first few months after Violet’s death in December 1915, Edith could not believe that she would ever write again.  But in a séance on June 16, 1916, Edith was asked to assist in contacting a Colonel Isherwood.  A message came back in automatic writing via a local medium.  It was from Violet: “You and I have not finished our work.”

Edith wrote fifteen books after Violet’s death, and included Violet’s name as co-author, believing that Violet assisted her from beyond the grave.  The combination of Edith’s and Violet’s intelligences, after thirty years of collaboration, was so great that it seems reasonable that Edith, whose capabilities were enormous, could maintain two minds in one head.

Edith Somerville in profile, dressed in matching skirt and jacket, holding gloves and riding crop behind her back. She wears a hat and appears quite serious.
Edith Somerville.
From Wheel-Tracks by Edith Somerville and Martin Ross, 1923

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin were in the first wave of New Women to be independent of men and to have successful professional lives.  Their observations on men and the relationships between men and women are chillingly accurate and boldly outspoken, in comparison with their contemporaries.  Both women were active in local non-violent women’s suffrage societies.

Edith was passionate in the extreme, her moods publicly readable in her face.  Violet was cool and detached, showing a dislike of romantic passages in their work.  As for their love for each other, one fact stands out: there was no passion in it.  Their letters show intimacy of a familiar, sisterly kind.  Women writers were aware that they were channeling their sexual energies into creativity.  Edith called her books her “illegitimate children,” as though the sublimation of biological creativity into artistic was improper for a woman.

Edith and Violet had contrasting personalities and writing styles.  Edith was brash, energetic, and multi-talented.  Violet was reserved, shy, indolent, and subject to neuralgic headaches and fatigue.  Edith’s writing style was pithy and smooth.  Like her drawing and painting, she worked fast, and used swift humor.  Violet’s style tended to be wordy and overwrought.  She wrote slowly, using polished and measured prose.  Their handwriting initially showed the same contrast, but merged over time until it looked identical.  Edith excelled in the power and mass of raw material, and Violet controlled the finish and form of their work.

Sketches of faces and characters, quickly captured
Edith Somerville, Character Sketches, c.1890. Collection Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.

Edith described their habit of “persistent eavesdropping” on the locals, and recording its spoils.  Edith took notes without looking at her hand and notebook while she talked, and Violet, who had poor eyesight, had a highly developed aural memory.  Yeats and Lady Gregory recognized that the cousins portrayed Irish speech and manners with an exactness and skill peculiarly their own.

The cousins are best known for their Irish R.M. stories-“among the most popular and successful works of comic fiction to have come out of Ireland.”  Some Experiences of an Irish R.M. was the first of a series of three comic novels, compiled from their Irish R.M. short stories.  The continuity of the characters is maintained from one tale to the next.  The stories were made into a British TV series, The Irish R.M. (1983-85).

Following the spirit and satirical tradition of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), the subject is the fish-out-of-water life of Major Yeates, an Anglo-Irish former British Army officer recently appointed as a resident magistrate (R.M.) in pre-independence West Ireland.  He is continually baffled and stymied by the townsfolk and their ways.

Cover art by Edith Somerville.

The vivid characters in the Irish R.M. stories are drawn from life.  Mr. Florence McCarthy Knox, or Flurry Knox, is Major Yeates’ landlord, a canny horse trader and grandson of Mrs. Knox of Aussolas Castle.

Mr. Knox accompanied me into the house and had a drink.  He was a fair, spare young man, who looked like a stable boy among gentlemen, and a gentleman among stable boys.  He belonged to a clan that cropped up in every grade of society in the county, from Sir Valentine Knox of Castle Knox down to the auctioneer Knox, who bore the attractive title of Larry the Liar…They were “Black Protestants,” all of them, in virtue of their descent from a godly soldier of Cromwell, and all were prepared at any moment of the day or night to sell a horse.

Flurry Knox materializes at key moments to explain the ways of the local culture to Major Yeates, and leads the Major into various unfortunate adventures.

Edith and Violet are at their best describing Flurry’s eighty-three-year-old grandmother as Major Yeates meets her for the first time, in the story “Trinket’s Colt”:

A short, upright old woman was approaching, preceded by a white wooly dog with sore eyes and a bark like a tin trumpet; we both got out of the trap and advanced to meet the lady of the manor.

I may summarise her attire by saying that she looked as if she had robbed a scarecrow; her face was small and incongruously refined, the skinny hand that she extended to me had the grubby tan that bespoke the professional gardener, and was decorated with a magnificent diamond ring.  On her head was a  massive purple velvet bonnet.

Faded gentility has rarely been described so effectively, as when the Major and Flurry stay for dinner:

Dinner was as incongruous as everything else.  Detestable soup in a splendid old silver tureen that was nearly as dark in hue as Robinson Crusoe’s thumb; a perfect salmon, perfectly cooked, on a chipped kitchen dish; such cut glass as is not easy to find nowadays; sherry that, as Flurry subsequently remarked, would burn the shell off an egg; and a bottle of port, draped in immemorial cobwebs, wan with age, and probably priceless.

Illustrations from Lisheen Races by Edith Somerville

In “Lisheen Races, Second-Hand,” Major Yeates receives a visitor, an old classmate from Oxford named Leigh Kelway, who has gone into politics, and is making a tour of Ireland with Lord Waterbury, to whom he was private secretary, “collecting statistics for his chief on various points connected with the Liquor Question in Ireland.”  If any group is made fun of in these stories, it is the casual English visitor who views the Irish as a subject for study:

With a stir of the old enthusiasm I wrote begging him to be my guest for as long as it suited him, and the following afternoon he arrived at Shreelane.  The stout young friend of my youth had changed considerably.  His important nose and slightly prominent teeth remained, but his wavy hair had withdrawn intellectually from his temples; his eyes had acquired a statesmanlike absence of expression, and his neck had grown long and birdlike.  It was his first visit to Ireland, as he lost no time in telling me, and he and his chief had already collected much valuable information on the subject to which they had dedicated the Easter recess.  He further informed me that he thought of popularizing the subject in a novel, and therefore intended to, as he put it, “master the brogue” before his return.

For some time, the Irish R.M. stories were unjustly associated with a supercilious Ascendancy portrayal of Stage Irish characters.  But the stories contain no stereotypes, only characters drawn from life who speak words taken down as they were spoken. The stories are excellent examples of the comedy of manners.

Each story gets the characters into fresh scrapes, and each story ends with an O. Henry-style twist.  The stories are gems, with quirky, fast-moving plots driven by eccentric characters speaking colorful dialect, surrounded by Irish countryside and a deep understanding of Irish culture.  In their bones, Edith and Violet were Irish.

"Country races of a typical sort"

In Gifford Lewis’ estimable 1988 biography, Somerville and Ross: The World of the Irish R.M., she observed:  “As social historians, their subject matter could not have been a richer, or more neglected, field.  Stephen Gwynn and Martin Ross, in one of the many series of letters they exchanged, discussed the difficulties caused by the inability of the Irish Nationalists to accept that some of the old Anglo-Irish class could be, by choice and passionate commitment, part of a new and independent Ireland.  Class-consciousness was ineradicable and is still thriving in the Ireland of today.  Stephen Gwynn ruefully wrote to Martin: ‘Caste is at the bottom of nine-tenths of our trouble.  A Catholic Bishop said to me “Drink did a lot of harm in Ireland, but not half as much as gentility.’…New Ireland never claimed Somerville and Ross as her own.  They have been curiously un-regarded in their own country—perhaps because they flourished at a time when their class was rejected and ousted and perhaps, too, for laughing when they shouldn’t have.”